Star Search was a show that was around all through my childhood. I just took it for granted as a staple. I never fathomed there even was a very first winner, let alone that our lives would cross paths.
Sam Harris won the first ever Star Search competition in 1984, and it’s good to know he remains a successful musician and performer to this day. We have the chance to see him play here in North Hollywood at the on
Harris called me on Tuesday morning to talk about his upcoming show. He was already well into his day, with children getting him up at 5:30 a.m. Midnight might be a late night for the working father, but he’s got big plans in store for those who count down the New Year with him on Saturday. For tickets visit www.elportaltheater.com. And .
PATCH: For people who don’t remember Star Search, what sort of opportunities did that immediately open for you?
SAM HARRIS: Well, for people who are not sure what Star Search was, I guess the only comparison would be American Idol because we had 25 million people watching every week and it was that immediate exposure and all the things that came from that. Unlike American Idol in which they put you on their record label and on their touring, they didn’t have that kind of machine for Star Search but all the major labels came out of the woodwork when I won so it was all of a sudden making records and nationally touring, the covers of magazines and being everywhere all at the same time from nowhere. So it was a crash course in career management. I had been schlepping around. I was quite young but I had been on my own since I was 15 and had been working and learning and creating and discovering and experimenting. Then all of a sudden it was just bam!
PATCH: How has your act evolved since 1984?
HARRIS: Since I was 23? [Laughs] Wow, the other night I guested at a Christmas show and I was wearing a Christmas tree costume and somebody talked about seeing my first tour and how at New Year’s Eve I was wearing a diaper as Baby New Years. I thought oh my God, I really haven’t [changed]. There are some elements that are the same. I won’t be wearing a diaper this year but the sense of creating a show, a concert that’s not just a succession of songs, that’s really an arc, that’s a theatrical piece, that has a sense of placement and structure and story. Not story like a book show but I love structuring and I love creating a theatrical element to everything that I do. With this New Years show, it’s favorites of mine. It’s things that I’ve sung forever that are in most concerts. It’s new things, juxtapositioning things to give them a sensibility, a perspective or sense of humor. Also in this show I have three incredibly gifted guests who are friends who are so unique and interesting, and bring their own special gifts and sensibility to the show.
PATCH: Tell us about their role in the show.
HARRIS: I’m fans of these three people. I worked with Levi Kreis and David Burnham recently when I directed them in a concert event called New York’s Finest. I had met David before then. I’d never met Levi. They’re very different performers and they’re both just really extraordinary. Levi Kreis won the Tony last years for Million Dollar Quartet and he’s just electric. He’s on fire. He just had ACL knee surgery and is coming out to do this so I’m particularly thrilled. David Burnham is just so passionate and he’s just got this incredible instrument. Lesli Margherherita [Stafford] I had heard about and I had seen her stuff online, but I had never met her. Then I did a thing recently that I worked with her. She’s so funny and inventive and interesting, never does the same thing twice. She’s really something. I assure you anybody who comes to see this is going to bring in the New Year with a bang.
PATCH: Are you performing all original songs or some covers?
HARRIS: It’s both familiar and original things. In this particular New Year’s show, it’ll be things I’ve recorded, things I’ve performed over the years but there will also be Broadway songs and covers of things. I’m a real lyric guy so it’s always interesting for me to pick something that we know and deconstruct it.
PATCH: What are some of the popular standards you’ll be performing in the set list?
HARRIS: Let’s see, I’m putting together four shows at the same time.
PATCH: Is that common for you?
HARRIS: Yes. Liza Minnelli and I just did a duet show in New York that we’re re-gearing and retooling to do on Broadway in the summer. There’s a book show about Jolson that I’m getting ready to go to New York to work on it, that we’re doing next year in Philadelphia. Then I have several contracts in January and they’re all different. I love this [set]. It’s so eclectic. I’m doing a U2 song, I’m doing Sondheim and Broadway and original things. Lesli and I are singing “Stormy Weather” together. I’m singing “Red House Blues,” a Jimi Hendrix song. I’m doing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” I’m doing an Edgar Winter song and I’m doing Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’m doing Sy Coleman and things that I’ve done on Broadway. So it’s really eclectic. The way that I choose material is what it says, what it comes from. There are sections of the show that lead to one another and make sense in the bigger picture.
PATCH: Will you sing “Old Lang Syne” at midnight?
HARRIS: Absolutely. We’ll have to time it. That’s a tricky one. We have to time it.
PATCH: Yeah, how do you build up the show to midnight?
HARRIS: Well, the show will have its natural arc and I’m using these guests and I’m singing with them, they’re singing solos and then I can pretty much tell from the number of songs and the talking and things that go on the length of the show. So we work backwards and try to time it out where we can have a moment for the countdown, sing “Old Lang Syne” and then there’s a beautiful Edgar Winter song called “Fly Away” that we’re all going to sing together that’s just about hope for a good year, a new year and for the future.
PATCH: Which of your biggest hits are part of the set?
HARRIS: I’m doing “[Somewhere] Over the Rainbow.” I’m doing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” songs that I’ve recorded that I do frequently, but I’m also mixing it up. For example, in the show that Liza and I did together, I rewrote a completely new lyric of “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago. Because this last year I had a number of surgeries from show injuries, on my knee, on my hip and all these back things. Liza, you know, she’s famous for her injuries and surgeries so we did this whole show about being these veterans of show business and being able to remember the injuries from the show title. So I completely rewrote a lyric from “Razzle Dazzle” which is just about going on with the show in spite of all the [injuries]. It’s a silly, funny lyric: “Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle ‘em. Flash ‘em a smile and then ironically they’ll forget you’re built bionically.” The whole thing is just about being made of all these parts and continuing to go on in show business. So I’m going to do that even though I’m doing it by myself without Liza.
PATCH: Could you have imagined getting to perform with Liza way back in 1984?
HARRIS: Well, Liza was one of the first shows I ever saw. When I was 10 years old, it was my first concert I ever saw when she was touring. She was just such the consummate brilliant performer and then we became very, very best friends 15 or almost 20 years ago I guess, We met and really became very close. She’s helped me with shows of mine, she’s produced a show of mine. I wrote a good deal of her Palace show and helped her through Minnelli on Minnelli. We’ve just worked with each other on our individual shows but this is the first time we’ve put together our own show. It’s called Schmoolie & Minooli.
PATCH: Have you ever played the El Portal before?
HARRIS: I have at a benefit but I’ve never done my own show there. It’s a beautiful theater. It feels like a real theater. It’s got a big stage and a nice proscenium. There’s not a bad seat in the house. The audience is raked so everyone can see. It’s a great warm [theater]. I’ve played theaters all over the world, all over the country and there’s a majestic quality and a nice history to it. The lobby is beautiful, the theater itself is beautiful. It’s got a warm feeling and yet it feels like it’s got enough history to have some ghosts in it. It doesn’t feel sterile like a lot of really modern theaters so it’s a great place to play.
PATCH: Do you live nearby in L.A.?
HARRIS: Yeah, I do. I live on the other side of the hill from the El Portal in the Los Feliz area.
PATCH: What is the rest of your family and your son doing on New Year’s Eve?
HARRIS: Well, he will be sleeping. He’s three. We haven’t figured out the rest. We’ve had a lot of family in town for the holidays and slowly people are flying back, so I’m not sure how much family is going to be there but I’ll have some friends there and I’ll have some friends on stage.
PATCH: Do you keep up with the current crop of TV music shows?
HARRIS: I don’t really watch American Idol. When somebody’s particularly strong, then I’ll tune in, when I hear about somebody really special. I love talent and I love new talent, but it’s odd for me in a way. I did enjoy The Voice last year because I thought it was an interesting twist. Then Frenchie Davis was in the New York’s Finest show I directed last summer, who has done The Voice and American Idol. And Ace Young who’d done American Idol and Broadway was in that show.
PATCH: I like The Sing-Off with a cappella groups.
HARRIS: Yes, I’ve seen a couple of those. Those are fantastic.
PATCH: This is a testament to how deeply I got into it, I got so mad when they kicked off the groups I liked.
HARRIS: Yeah, that’s always disappointing.
PATCH: But one is a The University of Rochester Yellowjackets so I can buy their music, and I follow Delilah on Twitter so I can keep up with their music.
HARRIS: Great, I think that’s the point too, to expose people to different talent and then you can follow them and see where they’re going and what’s happening.
PATCH: I would think just being on the show is as good as winning.
HARRIS: That’s right, because of the exposure.
PATCH: What kind of music are you listening to right now?
HARRIS: Oh my God, well I’ll tell you what, I played my last Christmas song. Having it around the house all the time, we’re quite the open house. We had family here, we had an open house on Christmas, we had six people staying here and we had our collection of about 150 CDs. Plus I was in St. Louis singing with the symphony for five days just before Christmas, so I’ll tell you what I’m not listening to anymore is Christmas songs. My taste is quite eclectic. Even though music is a gigantic part of my life obviously, I don’t listen to music casually. I don’t have it on in the background because I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing. People that can play an iPod or music while they’re working, I can’t do it. I can’t focus because I start thinking about the music and the lyrics and the chords. It’s like when I go to New York, I love musicals, I’ve done them, it’s my life but I tend to go see straight plays more than musicals. I’ll see things that my friends are in or something that’s wonderful. Then there’s the occasional off the charts thing that’s so fresh like Book of Mormon that’s just incredible, but I tend to be more critical of musicals and look at them with a different eye. It’s the same thing with casual music. I don’t really listen to it casually.
PATCH: You know, I used to be able to work with movies in the background but I can’t anymore. Maybe it’s the same thing, once you’re in the business you pay so much attention to it it can’t be casual anymore.
HARRIS: Because of the detail of it, maybe so.
PATCH: What are your hopes for 2012?
HARRIS: I think this country has been for a lot. We’re going through a lot and I think we’ve been on this roller coaster of hope and fear. I think there’s something very valuable with being with people and enjoying something and having the common experience of laughing and celebrating and crying together to bring in the new year. It sets us off with a positive. That’s something I pride myself on is creating a show and a concert theater experience that is emotional and is fun and is up and down in cycles, but it leaves you with something that is hopeful and celebratory. I think having that common experience is an important way to bring in our entire psyche for the new year. I’m not saying my show is going to change a year but I think it’s important to connect. You know what I mean?
PATCH: And at El Portal, it could be our neighbors in NoHo.
HARRIS: Even beyond that, there’s something about being [together]. It’s religious almost and church-like, having a common experience with strangers and going through an equal emotional experience in theater with people you don’t know. There’s something really magical about it and there’s something connecting about it. It’s very different from watching TV in your house or even watching a movie. A movie’s the same to a degree but there’s something about having a human exchange in a theater. I think it’s a powerful thing.